Recently transcribing a 1993 article about the life and times of W.G. Sibley, who founded the Gallipolis Daily Tribune exactly a century beforehand, I was reminded of the man’s most memorable quality as a journalist and individual — his outspokeness and courage in doing so. Dedicating himself to writing an editorial a day in the nearly 30 years he served as the newspaper’s publisher and editor, little escaped his attention and if he didn’t like what he saw or heard, a forceful what-for could be found within the paper’s columns.
His opinion pieces were noted well beyond the Ohio Valley and attracted some national attention, leading to a later-in-life position as a widely-read editorialist on such topics as business and travel across an increasingly shrinking world. Sibley’s most lasting piece of work as a chronicler of the passing scene may be his 1901 book “The French Five Hundred,” dealing with the settlement and founding of Gallipolis, but back in the day, his skills as a critic or advocate of daily issues brought notice to himself and his newspaper.
“The wit and wisdom of W.G. Sibley formed an important part of our household fare,” T. Lloyd Bush, the Tribune’s city editor from 1928 until 1932, recalled of his youth.
Born in 1860 at Racine, William Giddings Sibley entered upon what he called “the troubled waters of newspaperdom” in 1887 when he founded a weekly publication, the Meigs County Tribune, following a career in storekeeping, manufacture of cleaning fluids and other business ventures. He sold the Tribune to its leading opposition, the Pomeroy Telegraph, and looked to abandon country journalism until an opportunity arose in 1890 to buy the Weekly Tribune in Gallipolis. In October 1893, after sizing up the market, Sibley made the fateful decision to convert the Weekly Tribune into a daily publication.
Already known for not mincing words editorially from his previous experience in Racine, Sibley let loose only a few weeks after the Tribune’s conversion to a daily source of news with an editorial protesting substandard living conditions for the community’s poor and its social consequences.
“… Men who will buy up old shanties because they can get them for a song, and rent them to whoever they can get to occupy them, are enemies to the moral and material prosperity of a community,” Sibley raged. “Men who deal in that kind of real estate invite into the community on the one hand, all the vagabond element they have room for and on the other hand, are doing what they can to drive into vagabondism all who by sheer necessity are compelled to live in their miserable huts; for nothing so disheartens and degrades humanity as to chuck them in such cheerless surroundings.”
For more than two decades such strongly-worded and deeply-held viewpoint found its way into print through Sibley as the Tribune expanded from its meager beginnings to become the only daily newspaper in Gallia County. His firm stance on matters both local and international became his identifying trademark, evidenced by his opposition to the practice of allowing party bosses to pick and choose candidates for countywide office. His stand put him at odds with the local political leadership content to leave things as they were, but eventually paved the way for candidate selection in a primary.
As time went on, Sibley became less of a firebrand and his writings took on a mellower tone. Perhaps believing he had done all he could with the Tribune, he accepted the editorship of The Bee, the leading newspaper in Omaha, Neb., when it was offered to him in 1920. Homesickness prevailed, and within months Sibley found himself back in Gallipolis in a new role as a columnist for the Chicago-based Daily Journal of Commerce. Given the privilege of writing and submitting his odes to the U.S. business scene from his home, Sibley achieved a national following.
One of his later compositions, “Thrift as a Joy,” was hailed for its message of sober fiscal behavior at a time of national excess in the decade following World War I. And prior to his death early in 1935, Sibley added to his endeavors a travel piece under the banner of “Along the Highway,” sharing space in the Tribune with such commentators as O.O. McIntyre and Will Rogers.
In his day, Sibley recognized that in order to attract readership in a crowded market, controversy had to be a part of any publication with which he was involved. If it got him into hot water with all and sundry, it didn’t bother him, as he came to his position as owner and editor with the necessary tough skin, and because he knew it made his sheet a topic of conversation. And those individuals talking about Sibley’s editorials and news stories would return to the source for more discussion points. And despite a national presence that graced his later years, Sibley never forsook the area in which he was born, raised and met disappointment in his early adult life, only to rise to prominence on the basis of his editorial voice.
McIntyre, who knew and worked alongside Sibley during his younger years, found those qualities stayed with the man throughout the remainder of his life: “He loved his hometown, its people and its newspaper. As he grew older, he took on the serene dignity of thoughtful years. He had a finely chiseled face, a mop of tumbly hair, turned white, like Mark Twain, and deep-set, piercing eyes. One knew at once he was somebody.”
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.